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What to expect your first day on the job

By Laura Cavender, special for Gannett News Service

Let's face it: The 9-to-5 grind, despite all its rewards — including that steady paycheck — can be tough after a college schedule that requires you to roll out of bed, throw on a hat and show up at class.

But you can survive the working world if you know what to expect and how to get ahead.

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Making small talk

A rule for the real world: Never talk religion, politics or sex on a first date or in the workplace. Although these can be hot topics in the academic world, don't raise potentially-sensitive subjects with co-workers you just met.

Peter Photikoe, a photo editor at a daily newspaper, says he started thinking more about what he says before he says it. "I find myself asking, 'Will I offend people?' or 'Is this joke appropriate?' The whole PC thing carries more weight in the working world," he says.

Water cooler conversation is crucial. Fail-safe ice-breakers include current movies, topics in the news and books.

The name game

Before you start work

Your first day at a new job is much like the first day of class. It's the day you go over course materials and paperwork, discuss your responsibilities and get to know your professor's perspective on the semester.

On your first day, you can expect to:

  • Get an e-mail address.
  • Find out where your office or cubicle will be located, though you may not spend much time there.
  • Log-on to your computer and receive a company-issued password.
  • Meet with your supervisor. Be sure to discuss the expectations and duties of your position.
  • Fill out tax forms.
  • Sit through your organization's orientation.

In the meantime, observe the organization's culture and people.

Starting a new job often means you'll be introduced to a dozen people in a day. It's nearly impossible to remember all of them.

"Everyone has been there," says Marva Gumbs, executive director of The George Washington University Career Center in Washington, D.C. "Don't be afraid to ask someone's name if you can't remember it."

Of course, there are a few key names you'll have to know, including your supervisor's name and her boss's name. For the others, try repeating their names when you meet them and using their names in conversation to help them stick in your memory.

New friends

On a college campus, making friends is easy. The working world can be a bit tougher. Don't expect social serendipity your first few weeks on the job.

"We've found that many students go into a new job thinking they will develop strong friendships immediately," says Mike Shaub, associate director of Georgetown University's MBNA Career Centers. "And sometimes that happens, but just as often, it doesn't."

Although some companies encourage employees to socialize at employer-sponsored happy hours and social outings, others do little to foster a collegial environment.

This doesn't mean your attempts at friendship are in vain; it does mean you may have to make more of an effort yourself, taking into account what seems appropriate in your office.

Reaching for the sky

One of the most important things you can do as you enter the professional world is to find a mentor — someone you admire and can learn from.

Accenture hires more than 10,000 new college graduates each year. To help bridge the gap between college and work, the company relies on mentoring relationships for young employees. New employees join partners and senior management for lunches, dinners and Q&A sessions; employees just two or three years out of college share their first-hand experiences.

You may already have a mentor in mind: a professor in your field of study or an older professional you're comfortable with.

Mike Shaub recommends approaching him or her and asking if they'd be willing to share some thoughts with you. "Just take an existing relationship and tweak it a little bit," he says.

Some people make better mentors than others, says LaVerne Ludden, author of Job Savvy. Ludden encourages people who are new to their profession to make connections with people who are well-respected in their field or in the company, as well as older professionals who are willing to teach.

Ludden recommends testing the waters by asking a potential mentor for advice on something and watching how they respond. Are they eager to help? Open in their responses? If so, they may be a good fit.

If you don't know anyone in your field, ask friends and acquaintances to recommend someone they think you'd get along with personally and professionally. Many fields — especially the non-profit arena, journalism, academic settings and technology -frequently match new members of the profession with an older mentor upon entering the professional world.

Joining professional associations and using your alumni network are other smart ways to meet potential mentors.

Waking the dead

Most recent college grads say getting up early is one of the toughest adjustments to the working world. Make sure you get eight hours of sleep and avoid caffeine, alcohol and heavy foods two hours before bed.

Mike Kerrigan started his job at Maxant, a Chicago firm, a month after graduation. He endured eight hours of computer training his first day on the job. "I wasn't sure I could keep my eyes open any longer," he says. Although he adjusted quickly, he experienced an unexpected side effect. "Now, unfortunately, I wake up early on the weekends, too."

Shaub recommends creating a schedule that will keep you in top physical form. Regular exercise helps you fall asleep easier and gives you more energy during the waking hours. Ask some of your co-workers where they work out and how they fit it into their busy schedules -you may even find a workout partner.

Dressing for success

Take note of what other employees are wearing during your job interviews and on your first day in the office.

"If you're in doubt, dress more conservatively," Shaub says. "You can always dress down once you are certain of what is acceptable."

Don't be surprised if the dress code isn't exactly what the employee handbook tells you it will be. Some departments may be more casual than others, and much of the feel depends on the supervisor. If he or she wears a suit every day, it's more likely the rest of the department will dress up.

"There is a formal dress code," Ludden says, "and an informal one. Make sure you follow the informal one."

Be strategic. The way you dress may influence how others think about you. "Dress for the job you're aspiring to, no matter how casual your workplace is," Gumbs says. "You are always making an impression."

Next steps

Now that you've got the job, before you start:

  • Contact alumni from your undergraduate institution who may offer advice on the company culture, expectations and dress code.
  • Begin a regular schedule that includes waking up reasonably early.
  • Talk to older professionals who may be able to provide perspective on the working world — and may develop into a mentor for you.
  • Research professional organizations in your field.